The report that members of a deputy clique within the East LA station of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department beat up several other non-clique deputies, last month, at an after-hours party has raised serious concerns. The concerns, however, are no longer about whether or not the department has a deputy gang problem. That question appears to be settled.
The new questions are these:
So how large is the LASD’s deputy gang problem? And what is the department doing to solve it?
For those who missed our earlier story, here are the basics:
In the wee hours of September 27—or technically September 28, as it was well past midnight—-a large party was winding down at a rentable event venue in East LA, when a violent brawl broke out between off-duty members of the LA Sheriff’s Department, most of whom worked at the LASD’s East LA Station. The fight was reportedly started by members of a notorious deputy clique known as the Banditos, who reportedly had become a powerful presence at the station. By the fight’s end, at least two department members were reportedly taken by ambulance to the hospital, and two more required medical treatment. Three deputies and a sergeant, all considered Banditos members, were reportedly relieved of duty for their parts in the fight.
“The real underlying fear behind the abhorrent behavior displayed by this clique of deputies,” said retired department commander Robert Olmsted, “is, if they can do this to ‘one of their own,’ how are they treating the constituents of the county?”
And that worry leads to others. For instance, “Are the citizens too fearful to approach the deputies for help?” asked Olmsted, a respected department whistleblower who ran for sheriff in 2014.
“Have previous force issues been covered up or reported accurately? Is this truly the Tradition of Service promised?”
Gangs with badges
As it turns out, this is not the first time that some of those involved in the above fight that sent other department members to the hospital have had problems.
Deputy Gregory Rodriquez, one of the alleged Banditos who was relieved of duty following the after-hours brawl a month ago, was charged in 2015 with one count each of perjury and submitting the false police report. It seems that when Deputy Rodriguez arrested a man named Christopher Gray, he said that Gray was attempting to free two men already arrested from the back seat of a patrol car. Rodriguez also accused Gray of inciting the crowd and threatening deputies, although, according to prosecutors with the DA’s Integrity Division, a video made of the incident seemed to show Gray mostly standing with his arms folded, doing nothing. When the case went to trial, however, the jury deadlocked with 8 voting to acquit, and the prosecutors announced they would be unable to proceed in case. So the judge dismissed it. Hung jury notwithstanding, in July of 2015, the LA County Board of Supervisors voted to award Gray, who said his shoulder was injured in the encounter, $549,000 for the matter.
In 2014, then Deputy Guadalupe Lopez, a ten year veteran of the force, described in a civil lawsuit filed by attorney Greg Smith, how members of the Banditos “sexually harassed, threatened and demanded sex from her” as part of “training” when she was transferred to the department’s East LA station in 2011. According to the lawsuit, after Lopez declined the personal advances, harassment, hazing, and other forms of retaliation resulted. This allegedly included being run off the road by another deputy, being slammed hard into a wall while she held a loaded shotgun, and having dead rat placed under her car after she reported objectionable behavior by the group.
Lopez also alleged observing favors being demanded from other female probationary deputies, including in one case, a trainee allegedly being asked to write arrest reports “that were essentially fabricated.”
Lopez’ lawsuit was ultimately settled with LA County for $1,500,000.
Lopez was not the only one who described such experiences. Attorney Smith told WLA, that he has two more similar lawsuits by female deputies alleging similar abuse by Banditos at the department’s East LA Station. One lawsuit, brought by Deputy Rosa Gonzales, has “been in litigation for over a year,” Smith said. Another is “about to be filed.”
Added to these three women and their allegations, we have learned from two of our sources, one an active department member, of two additional women who reportedly had been similarly harassed and threatened by members of the Banditos clique, but managed to eventually move on from the East LA Station, and decided not to look back.
The Vikings, the Regulators and the bad old days.
One of the reasons the reported Bandito beat down was particularly alarming to many department watchers, is that the LASD has a rich and less than pleasant history with deputy cliques that have crossed the line into gangster-like behavior.
It is important to say here that not everyone who belongs to a deputy “affinity group” or clique, engages in questionable behavior, or worse. Even if they’ve gotten “inked,” some are simply good cops who enjoyed the group, but steered clear of the rest.
Among the most notorious group of deputies in the department’s history were the Vikings, operating out of the Lynwood station, whose members sported numbered Viking tattoos on their ankles, threw gang signs—L for Lynwood—occasionally spray-painted Vikings tags in the Lynwood area to mark their “turf,” and bragged openly about viciously harassing supervisors who tried to reign them in until those supervisors transferred away from Lynwood.
In the early 1990’s, members of the same Lynwood Vikings were the primary defendants in a massive class action suit against the department alleging a widespread pattern of brutality against Lynwood residents.
The suit resulted in a $9 million settlement and drew unusually harsh “findings of fact” from one federal judge, plus a trio of justices from the Ninth Circuit.
These deputies, wrote the 9th Circuit of the Vikings, “…regularly disregard the civil rights of individuals they have sworn to protect.” They engaged in misconduct “both malicious and pervasive…” Black and Hispanic men were “repeatedly arrested without cause and severely beaten at the Lynwood station, the County jail, and the ‘Operations Safe Streets’ trailer.” The court described “instances where deputies placed the muzzle of a firearm in a suspect’s ear, mouth or behind his head, and threatened to pull the trigger, or actually fired the gun without discharging a bullet…” and more.
After the Vikings, came the Regulators, the Grim Reapers, the Jump Out Boys, and more, along with the 2000 Boys and the 3000 Boys, in Men’s Central Jail, with their unpleasant habit of breaking inmates’ orbital bones.
“There’s always been a tension in the department between people who are willing to bend the rules and those who are not,” said former LASD lieutenant, Roger Clark. Clark, who was working during the Viking days, has frequently been called to act an expert witness about his experience with and knowledge of law enforcement subcultures, which he calls “peer clans,” like the Vikings, the 3000 Boys, the Banditos, and the rest.
This behavior, said Clark, “is a cancer.” And like a cancer, if not addressed, “it’ll spring up other places.” This means, he said, echoing Olmsted, that the deputy gangs “not only exert power in the station.” Unfortunately, he said, that the same behavior is also acted out on community members in ways that are too often less than legal.
LASD Sergeant Mark Moffet, who has been with the department for nearly 30 years, and who now works at the Cerritos station, said that one of his old stations, Compton, like East LA, is seeing a lot of conflict between the “inked and non-inked deputies.”
The same is true with Century station, according to Moffit. But at Century, he said, there is additional conflict between two different “inked” groups, those who’ve been working at the station, and those who are new and coming out of custody. “You know, the deputies who’ve been working the jail, and get transferred to patrol, and try to say, ‘This is how it’s going to be.'”
More than ten years ago, when he was working at Compton, Moffett had his own run-ins with inked department members. After several years of reportedly being taunted and harassed by another LASD sergeant named Timothy Cooper, and his crew, who told Moffett that he didn’t have what it takes to be a “real deputy”—meaning he was not enough of a do-whatever-it-takes hard charger. He didn’t push the edge enough.
For several years, Moffett did not report Cooper, even as news of their run-ins and Cooper’s reported threats made the rounds on the department’s gossip telegraph.
Then one morning in 2009, inside the Compton Sheriff’s station, Cooper pulled a gun on Moffett and pointed it at his head, in plain sight of others.
“I’m going to kill you,” Moffett said Cooper mouthed at him. “I’m going to kill you.”
According to Moffett, this time he decided enough was enough, and reported the other sergeant.
Weirdly, it turned out that Cooper had not just one ankle tattoo, but two—one of the Viking symbol, the other that of the Regulators.
“The difference between the deputy gangs, and someone who just gets a station tattoo,” said Moffet of the newest deputy clique issues, a deputy gang “is discriminatory.”
For instance, he said, “everyone who is a U.S. Marine,” can get a Marine tattoo. “But in these groups,” only certain people are invited, “and being a so-called ghetto gunslinger is an advantage.”
Unfortunately, what results, Moffet said, is a situation where “you’re turning cops into predators.”
So what to do?
The answer, unsurprisingly, according to everyone we spoke with on the topic, lies with leadership.
Leadership, said Olmsted, must send “a strong message to the organization, and especially to the public that this behavior is not tolerated, condoned, not covered up!”
According to Olmsted, department leaders lose “an excellent opportunity to change the culture of an organization” if this message-sending “is not done promptly and immediately.
“This is what the public wants and what the department needs,” he said.
Bryan Williams, the executive director of the LASD’s Civilian Oversight Commission, said that part of the dilemma is the fact that this gang business has been going on for decades.
“This is not a new problem,” he said. “But I think there was an assumption that it had been taken care of. Obviously, it has not.”
To fix the deputy gang problem, the department needs cultural change, according to Williams.
“But cultural change doesn’t overnight. And it has to be constantly emphasized…Which means there has to be strong and decisive leadership.”
And that requires action. You can’t just send the message “if you do this, we will get you,'” said Williams.
“Some people have to get gotten.”
When we talked to Sheriff Jim McDonnell about the most recent outbreak of the LASD’s chronic deputy clique problem, he said that the department was working on it from multiple directions.
“We’re working on it with the inspector general’s office. We’re working on it with the oversight commission. We’re looking at bringing an outside entity in to make sure we have a 30,000-foot look at it, and that we hold our people accountable. But we want to do it the right way,” said McDonnell.
The topic, he said, is important to police agencies across America. “So we want to do this in a way that is instructive to others.”
At the same time, McDonnell said, the department will “deal with each case individually, and take each case seriously. Every component of the equation matters,” he said. “And we look very closely at all of it.”
Photo at the top is a frame taken from a citizen’s video of a Lynnwood deputy flashing Viking sign, “L” for Lynwood, circa late 1980s.